How much do you know about Nicaragua? I can honestly say that until fairly recently I’d be hard-pressed to tell you what continent it was on. Like much of South America, Nicaragua simply doesn’t make an appearance in a lot of textbooks in American history classes—it is one of the many places swept under the rug of history to be hidden away. I was lucky to have someone point this out to me—a specialist in memoir with a fascination for Latin American women authors, Dr. Lisa Ortiz-Vilarelle, currently the graduate chair at The College of New Jersey. I’ve said in other posts about memoir when I first found myself staring at an entire semester of memoir selections, I was none too pleased. In fact, the word is intimidated. I had convinced myself sometime during my childhood that memoir was like autobiography—dry and awful and not my thing. After all, I’m into dragons and magic and stuff like that, dry and awful is hard to come by when there are dragons (unless you’re talking about their skin). But memoir isn’t dry and awful when you’re reading it—at least, it doesn’t have to be. Memoir is a blend, a dash of autobiographical detail mixed carefully with a measured eye for storytelling. A proper memoirist knows narrative, not just timelines, entertainment, not just history, and they weave all the threads together to create something that communicates on several planes to several audiences.
Gioconda Belli is a huge Nicaraguan figure to start—even though there aren’t many in the US who probably recognize her name. She was a headliner of the Sardinista movement in Nicaragua and later left Nicaragua. She was a widely recognized poet, something that can easily be seen through her prose. The Inhabited Woman is her way of showing us the movement of the Sandinistas—emphasis on movement. There is so much motion—in her plot, in her phrasing, in the emphatic poetry of the chapters. And a revolution is, by its nature, a thing of movement—from one ideology to another, towards like-minded thinkers, and, sometimes, toward violence. Belli also plays with narrative construction by having parallel stories: one of a native, Itza, centuries past fighting the Spanish invasion and Lavinia, a wealthy woman who has been educated in Europe and now lives back at home… in a country that is never named but clearly refers to Nicaragua. Itza’s spirit has survived in the form of an orange tree that is growing in Lavinia’s yard and she watches Lavinia, becomes aware of the world again. Itza and her lover, Yarince, failed to properly defeat the Spanish conquistadors—and as a failed guerilla warrior she doesn’t understand why Lavinia is not more engaged with the growing struggle in the modern time. Lavinia has the protection of being privileged: she doesn’t experience the restrictive and aggressive aspects of the government, she has no personal reason to give up her space of privilege for other people’s comfort. However, Lavinia’s romantic connections with Felipe, a guerilla, and her eventual “inhabitation” by the spirit of Itza shows her that personal comfort should not make us blind to the needs of our countrymen. Lavinia does not benefit from the revolution—she only stands to lose— but she is stirred to revolution for the country, as the country—like Itza—has been conquered, formed by invaders, and the people native to the land should have some say over the continued formation of their home.
Belli writes with the spirit of a poet—that is no surprise as she is a poet. There is a complete lack of restraint to the wording of the novel—it is a sigh, a scream, and the action occurs on inhales and dies down on exhales. While Lavinia is stewing, becoming aware, Itza’s oranges are beginning to bloom and swell—it is the world’s slowing inhale, happening for both women over many long, arduous weeks. Just as Lavinia is reaching for an answer, grasping for weight to give her life, Itza fills her. Both women may be romantically involved with men, but it is their entwining, the inhabitation, that carries the story. Lavinia finds the most natural, most ancient part of herself, her patriotism, her motion, through Itza’s spirit. Itza, though dead and defeated, never admits defeat—her fight is endless, her strength enduring. Itza is what the spirit of ancient women always feels like to me—a pantheon unto itself in its variety, its spice, and its nobility.
While this book is technically memoir for the fantastic similarities Lavinia shares with Belli, there is obvious a dose of magical realism that others may recognize as a feature of Isabel Allende or Gabriel Garcia Marquez. It is unlikely that a real feature of Belli’s life was an orange tree with the soul of a dead native guerilla inside of it. However, the symbolism of her awakening, her realization of purpose, and her eventual joining with the guerillas is wonderfully punctuated with Itza—and Itza also represents the complicated relationship of patriotism in a conquered land. After all, Lavinia is the spiritual descendent of Itza, but realistically the blood of Nicaragua is punctuated by the Spaniards who conquered them, and the native bloodlines are gone (notably, Itza does not have children with Yarince). Belli doesn’t harp on this colonial note but it can be teased out by looking at the differences between the ancient and modern rebels. This inclusion of the history is a master-stroke by Belli— the memories of lands are longer than that of people, and in the current struggle for freedom Belli didn’t want Nicaragua to forget that it had already fought for, and lost, freedom in the past.
This narrative is intoxicating—it just flows off the page and is hard to put down. The rarity of the narrative also can’t be underestimated: there isn’t a huge section in the local bookstore for “Nicaraguan” literature, in fact you’d be lucky to find a shelf. This is a shame, but not a surprise. The United States had a complicated relationship with Nicaragua to say the least—and we do not play the heroes in the tale of the country. Like a bad memory we want to hide we shy away from stocking the evidence of anything that doesn’t show us blazing forth in glory like Captain America—and it doesn’t help that a revolutionary memoir like this wasn’t easy to get in the first place. My love for this book comes from how many barriers had to be shattered for this book to come to light—Belli’s personal struggles, the country’s revolution, Belli’s struggles as an artist and writer, and the always present but rarely discussed difficultly to get published…..and then the struggle to find readership. If you like boundaries getting shattered and love the feel of poetry on a page—pick this book up, though it isn’t easy to find.
Gioconda Belli is a Nicaraguan poet, writer and political activist who was heavily involved in the Sardinista political movement pre-Ortega (whom she criticizes). One of Central America’s great writers, Belli’s poems and novels have been translated into several languages. She currently splits her time between Los Angeles and Nicaragua. She has also authored “The Country Under My Skin” and “Infinity in the Palm of The Hand” and countless poems.